Reason works with a contractor who lives in small-town Siberia. As Vladimir Putin’s tank convoy rolled toward Kyiv in early March and a flurry of economic sanctions were imposed on Russia by public and private actors, I found myself asking if we could still pay our guy, whether we should do so in bitcoin, and what the consequences might be if we did.
Most of this issue of Reason was already edited when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started, so this is the only place in these pages you’ll see mention of the potentially earth-shattering conflict involving a nuclear nation. (For breaking news, check out reason.com.)
But as this magazine goes to press, the most urgent concern is not whether the U.S. will send troops to the front lines of a foreign war. President Joe Biden has categorically ruled that out under current circumstances, for good reason and to good effect.
Instead, a whole host of other potential interventions—most of them cultural or economic—are forcing global politicians and businesspeople to do an even more complicated moral calculation.
There’s undeniably something inspiring about seeing a global consensus against a violent occupation emerge in real time. But which boycotts, cancellations, and sanctions are defensible and well-targeted against the state actors who are responsible for the attack on Ukraine, and which are overly punitive and possibly counterproductive against ordinary Russians, many of whom don’t support Putin’s actions?
The World Taekwondo organization’s decision to withdraw the honorary 9th dan black belt it conferred on Putin in 2013, for instance, is extremely defensible, narrowly targeted, and frankly hilarious. Less clearly worth it is the accompanying edict not to “organise or recognise Taekwondo events in Russia and Belarus.”
On the other end of the spectrum are the clearly indefensible actions of the vandals who shattered windows and tore down a flag outside of Russia House, a restaurant across the street from Reason‘s D.C. office that isn’t even owned by Russians. But surely if the same restaurant declared all proceeds would be going to support the Russian war effort, it would be laudable for a hungry customer to walk 15 minutes to the Ukrainian-owned D Light Cafe instead?
In both of these examples, the stakes are relatively low, which makes the moral math easier. But in many other cases the stakes are very high indeed, even as the gray area is vast and murky.
Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul was roundly denounced on Twitter in early March for his overly simplistic claim that “there are no more ‘innocent’ ‘neutral’ Russians anymore. Everyone has to make a choice—support or oppose this war. The only way to end this war is if 100,000s, not thousands, protest against this senseless war. Putin can’t arrest you all!” But this same thinking shapes the criticism of Valery Gergiev, a Russian conductor who was fired from his position with the Munich Philharmonic for refusing to “distance himself…from the brutal war of aggression which Putin is leading.” Surely brave acts of civil disobedience are not always morally mandatory, even if they are praiseworthy.
Mere days after the war began, Nike and Apple have closed their online stores in Russia. MSC and Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping lines, have suspended container shipping to and from Russia. Boeing and Airbus have stopped supplying parts and support to Russian airlines and cut off access to manuals required for repairs. The energy sector has the most to lose in cutting ties with the fossil fuel giant, but even Shell and BP are literally abandoning the field.
There is no doubt that locking top Russian banks out of the SWIFT payment system will put the squeeze on Putin and his oligarchs. And Visa and Mastercard have blocked those sanctioned Russian financial institutions from their payment networks as well. But the per capita GDP in Russia is half of what it is in the United States; depending on skyrocketing inflation and other economic cascades, the rest of the Russian population could well be choked to death before Putin’s intimates start to feel a pinch.
Then there are the economic systems designed to work outside of the state to begin with. Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov has asked digital asset platforms to freeze all Russian users’ blockchain addresses. And in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared herself “disappointed” that not all crypto exchanges were complying, complaining that they were “refusing to end transactions with Russia for some philosophy of libertarianism or whatever.”
Among those exchanges still serving Russians are Binance and Kraken, which have argued that most of those users are against the war and that to freeze their assets due to state action would be against the ethos of the crypto movement.
The list goes on and on. DirecTV should absolutely not be required to carry the Russian state propaganda network RT. Meanwhile, Netflix has refused to carry RT within Russia itself, and the likely result is that the streaming service will be blocked there. Disney has preemptively withdrawn cinematic releases from Russian theaters. Again: Will cutting off regular Russians from outside media and global markets help or hurt?
This question haunts the debate over state-imposed economic sanctions as well. Iran, Cuba, and North Korea have been under U.S. sanctions for several decades, to little geopolitical effect and at massive costs to the ordinary people who live under those authoritarian regimes. (Not to mention the costs to American consumers and producers.) The Russian sanctions are harsher and reach deeper into the economy than previous sanctions have done, but citizens being fed propaganda may well decide, with some justice, that they are the targets of a global conspiracy with the predictable effect on nationalism and expansionism.
As an editor, one thing I think a lot about is when to use the word we. Most of Reason‘s writers are American. Most of our readers are American. But one of our fundamental beliefs is that governments and citizens are different. And then there’s our Russian contractor.
“We” do not go to war; governments go to war—sometimes conscripting an unwilling “we” to go along. “We” do not buy tanks; governments take our money under threat of imprisonment and spend it on munitions. “We” do not exclude refugees; governments block borders and ports with armed agents to turn people away regardless of whether a citizen would welcome them into her home.
Government is not, in fact, simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together, as former Rep. Barney Frank (D–Mass.) is dubiously reputed to have said. Even in the pages of Reason, these terms can get dodgy. We’ve been known to slip up and use “the United States” as a synonym for “the U.S. government.” But it isn’t.
One of the best things about living in a liberal democracy is that the space between citizens and the state is safeguarded (not always as well as I’d prefer, to be sure). But in Russia, for decades if not centuries, that space has been crowded out, squeezed down, crushed beneath a boot.
That’s no accident. Due to Russia’s deeply, corruptly entangled public and private sectors, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the state ends and markets begin. Authoritarian regimes like it that way, because they treat citizens as means, not ends in themselves—as cannon fodder and cogs in a managed economic machine, not free people deserving of rights and dignity. As a consequence, private citizens who just want to go about their business will suffer horribly for the crimes of their government.
Many punitive actions taken by countries and companies are driven by intuition rather than principle. There is a sense, admirable in itself, that to be complicit with a regime willing to stage a violent occupation is wrong. But it is also deeply wrong to be complicit in the economic destruction of innocent civilians, millions of whom reside within Russia’s borders.